A month ago, my brother, sisters, and I gathered on a Sunday afternoon at my dad’s house.* It was a gorgeous February day – my brother’s birthday – and we were together to celebrate him and begin the arduous task of going through my mom’s things.
*I have to force myself to do that. To say, “my dad’s house”. For 36 years, it has been “Mom and Dad’s”, or “my parents'”. I have to make a conscious effort to remind myself only one parent lives there now.
I’d been putting off committing to doing this. It petrified me, down to the core. That house and the memories made there were the backdrop of my life. From 18 months to 25 years, nearly every important milestone connected me to those bricks and cement. The thought of having to go through it…I was scared of what I might find.
I finally gave in because I knew I couldn’t be selfish and delay. The world – much to my dismay, at times – does not revolve around me. But in the week leading up to it, the dread and anxiety snaked around my heart and mind, squeezing tighter every day, til I thought I may not be able to take a full breath. The added pressure of starting a new job and a longer commute attempted to pull my focus, distract me, but on the quiet train ride home, it slithered back in.
I have not figured out how to navigate this grief. Spending an exorbitant amount of time in retrospect and reflection, I somehow made myself believe I could figure it out. Assess every possible scenario, identify all triggers, and either prepare for or ignore the aftershocks. As I grow older, I become more balanced in my worlds of logic and emotion. I feel I have more control over them both so they remain in a fluid equilibrium, the scale only ever slightly tilting this way and that so as to remain present in the feeling, calm in my reaction, and thoughtful in my response. This is something of which I am in constant practice. And I thought I could be present in my grief, allow it to crash over me without getting dragged into the undercurrent, and reflect on it, wet from its waves but still standing. I’m afraid I was woefully mistaken about my capabilities.
As we began going through my mother’s clothes and jewelry that afternoon, the dining room melted from view and revealed a war zone. Land mines surrounded me and there was no clear path of avoiding them.
I would set them off, and in turn, I would explode.
There was no preparing, no ignoring. I couldn’t hide in the trenches, for even there, the blasts were loud and violent, reverberating in my head. Every single piece of cloth that once hung from my mother’s shoulders or clung to her leg was held up to the light with a knowing sigh, and it tore through me like shrapnel, leaving me battered and bloody, noxious fumes swirling as I clawed my way through the muck and the mud, gasping for clean air.
Approximately 30 minutes elapsed before I had to escape, to run. My body collapsed in a trembling, sobbing heap on the back deck as the unseasonably warm day whirred around me. I couldn’t escape. Everywhere I looked, she surrounded me. The chairs, the trees, the bushes, the swing set, the barrels, the lilacs. Every blade of grass, every branch was…is my mom.
The pain and sadness would not be suppressed. The longing to see her, hear her, be close to her. Flashes of her final day and the recognition in her eyes that it was the last we’d see each other alternated with glimpses of our past: planting flowers around the base of the maple tree, or asking her to watch me do a baby drop off the monkey bars just to see the mixed emotions of pride and terror cross her face. They come fast and furious and I can’t stop them. I want to stop them. And I want to hold on. I want to suspend time and live in that memory for just a little longer because then I can pretend she’s still here and I don’t have to live without her.
I don’t want to live without her.
After the air cleared and the battle retreated, I placed in my car the things I had chosen to keep. One of the items was her purple winter jacket, with dark turquoise lining and a faux-fur-trimmed hood. I needed a new one, and it made me smile to find tissues and cough drops in the pockets. I’ve been wearing it a lot the past week due to the storms, and though it has been 15 months since it last wrapped around her, it smells of cigarette smoke and perfume. The third-hand smoke kicks my allergies into high gear and causes me to sneeze constantly. My co-workers think I smoke because of the way it clings to my clothes and hair. It disgusts me greatly, like it does when I see someone smoking on the street. I want to violently shake them and scream in their face, “You have no idea what you’re doing to your body! You will leave someone battered and broken because of your addiction. You have no idea what you are doing…”
But I haven’t washed it yet. It’s been a month, and I can’t bring myself to do it. I smell the coat and she’s there. I can live in my mind where she is right next to me, and we are sharing a laugh about my kids’ latest quirky behavior. I can smell the cigarette smoke and Liz Taylor’s White Diamonds perfume, and I hear her voice and see her hands, and I am with her again.
So, I smell like smoke. I loathe it. Yet I love it.